Micah: Keep it Simple

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah was a contemporary of Amos and in many ways his message is similar: Terrible judgement is coming because of the individual and corporate sins of the nations of Israel and Judah. God’s people, whom he had chosen in order that they might be a light to the pagan nations around them, have failed abysmally in that respect. Far from demonstrating love for God and neighbor, they are consumed by greed and plot ways to take advantage of their neighbors. Micah rails, “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance.”  “Your rich people are violent; your inhabitants are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully. Therefore, I have begun to destroy you, to ruin you because of your sins”. Micah also has God speaking rather harsh words to the country’s leaders, who are using rather than serving the common people:  “Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel. Should you not embrace justice, you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones; who eat my people’s flesh, strip off their skin and break their bones in pieces; who chop them up like meat for the pan, like flesh for the pot?”

Those who claim to speak for God are not speaking God’s words. Instead, they proclaim a kind of eighth-century prosperity gospel, as Micah sarcastically notes with “If a liar and deceiver comes and says, ‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ that would be just the prophet for this people!”  These populist prophets tell Micah to stop speaking out against social injustice, because God isn’t really concerned about that kind of thing. “Do not prophesy,” their prophets say.“Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.” Priests and prophets alike seem to think that God is concerned mainly about proper ritual behavior and worship. Micah hears God as saying they are very wrong: God is much more concerned with how people treat each other. “With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly[a] with your God.”

Lest other nations gloat over Israel’s downfall and think that it proves God is irrelevant, they will find they are wrong. God will find a way in spite of his obtuse people. There’s a lovely little prophecy in chapter 5 about a promised good and wise ruler from Bethlehem, whom Jews understand to be a messianic second David and Christians understand to be Jesus. This  ruler will lead the people into being what God intended for them to be from the beginning: an example and a blessing to all the other nations on earth. “Many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.”

Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite Bible verses, because it says that what God expects from us is not complicated. He wants us to act justly- to treat people fairly ourselves, and to be advocates for those who are being taking advantage of. He wants us to love mercy- to be kind and forgiving and helpful to everyone we can. And he wants us to walk humbly- to be aware that we are not in the place of God, that we do not have all the answers, that we should be willing to listen and to learn, that “it’s not about me”. There are no magic words we must say or rituals we must perform in exactly the right way to get in God’s good graces, no long lists of “thou shalts and shalt nots” to memorize and obey, no need to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Just three simple, yet profound things on the divine “to do” list. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.

It’s simple, really, and it reminds me of what Jesus would tell us many years later “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”.  God will eventually accomplish what he intended, the earth and its inhabitants will at last be all they were meant to be, and God invites us to join him in making it so. And that’s good news to me.



Jonah: More than a Fish Story

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?

Jonah is one of my favorite Bible stories, and it’s not about a big fish. Personally, I don’t think it is meant to be taken literally at all. It’s a great example of the power of stories to tell the truth in ways that less powerful genres cannot.

The story begins with God telling Jonah to go to Nineveh and warn its people that God is not pleased with their behavior and if they do not change their ways, they are headed for destruction. Nineveh was a major city located near current Mosul, Iraq, and the capital of the Assyrian empire under Sennacharib. To say that Assyrians were not nice people would be an understatement: ISIS seems to have taken a few pages from their playbook. Assyria was bent on capturing and subjugating Israel, and waged war with exceptional cruelty, which is described in the Bible and also in external sources such as as the Lachish reliefs . The Biblical book of Nahum elaborates on Assyrian atrocities in poetic detail, calling it a city full of blood among other vivid descriptions.

Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh, and who could blame him? Instead he books passage on a ship headed in the opposite direction. God brews up a storm that threatens to sink the ship, which Jonah apparently sleeps through until awakened by the ship’s captain. Lots are cast to determine who is responsible, and the lot falls on Jonah, who by now feels guilty and urges the sailors to throw him overboard. Ironically, the pagan crew seems to hold high moral standards of their own: they initially protest the idea of sacrificing Jonah to save themselves. The storm grows worse, so they give in and as soon as he goes over the side, the seas calm. Meanwhile, God “provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah” and Jonah winds up in time-out in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights. Upon his exit from the fish, Jonah again hears the voice of God telling him to “go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you”. Jonah reluctantly obeys this time, meets with astonishingly successful results, and God relents and doesn’t destroy the city or its people.

One would think Jonah would be pleased, especially considering that the outcome for most of God’s prophets in Israel were not quite so sunny. But he isn’t, and in fact is quite angry with God. He complains, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed as punishment for its many sins, and thinks God is wrong for sparing it. God responds by declaring both his sovereignty and his care for all his creation. And that’s the end of the story. Nineveh repents, but we don’t know whether Jonah ever does.

One of the most fascinating details of this story to me is that it presents both the pagan sailors and the pagan Assyrians more positively than most of the rest of the Old Testament treats nonbelievers. The sailors place a high value on human life, as evidenced by their unwillingness to sacrifice Jonah if they could find a way out of that. All the Ninevites, from the king on down, listen to God and change their behavior.There are plenty of Biblical examples of times the children of Abraham, who are supposed to be a moral and theological light to the rest of the world, fail abysmally. That is as true today as it was then. I know some atheists who are kind and caring people and some Christians who are quite mean and nasty people.

But I think the main point of the story is this: God loves everyone, bad people and good people alike, and will go to incredible, even ridiculous lengths to demonstrate that love. Isn’t that what the message of the cross is all about?  There is nothing we can do to change God’s love for us. There is nothing God will not do in an attempt to bring us back into relationship with him.  And that’s really good news to me!

Obadiah: What Goes Around…

“The day of the Lord is near
for all nations.
As you have done, it will be done to you;
your deeds will return upon your own head.”

At only 21 verses, Obadiah is the shortest book in the  Hebrew Bible. It concerns the Edomites, who were distant cousins of the Israelites. Both nations claimed Abraham and Isaac as ancestors, but the Edomite line came through Esau and the Israelite line through Jacob.

Although distant cousins, the Edomites and the Israelites did not get along much better than their ancestors Esau and Jacob. Edom was usually treated as a kind of vassal state by Israel, and a case could be made that Israel took advantage of Edom in much the same way as Jacob took advantage of Esau. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC, the tables were turned, and Edomites joined in the looting of the captured city. Obadiah condemns Edom for taking advantage of Israel’s situation instead of helping them, and predicts their destruction as a consequence. Unlike Israel, Edom is beyond redemption. God will eventually restore Israel, but Edom’s destruction will be complete and permanent.

Many commentators see Edom as an archetype of any nation or people opposed to God. Later Jewish theologians identified Rome with Edom, and interestingly/sadly enough, also with Christendom. Most Christian theologians agree with their Jewish brethren than Edom should be seen as a symbol for those “powers and principalities” that are against God and his people.

Obadiah is a sobering reminder that “what goes around comes around”. Actions have consequences which can be permanent and serious. That’s the bad news. For the good news, one has to read between the lines of this short book and imagine the converse of the karmic storm Edom faced. If Edom had not gloated over Jerusalem’s destruction, but instead had helped its refugees, how might their story have been different? Would they have been included in the restored kingdom Obadiah envisioned? Centuries later, Paul writes to the Galatians: “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

God has built justice into the moral fabric of the universe, and I think that’s good news. It is morally wrong to take advantage of someone else’s misfortune to enrich oneself. It is morally right to help others whenever we can in whatever ways we can. “What goes around comes around” can be bad news or good news, depending on the choices we make. Choose wisely.

Amos: A Call to Social Justice

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
    and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
    and the needy for a pair of sandals—
 they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
    and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
    so that my holy name is profaned;
 they lay themselves down beside every altar
    on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
    wine bought with fines they imposed.

Although there are many passages in the Law and the Prophets which warn that God is not happy when the game of life is rigged in favor of the upper classes, no one sounds the call for social justice as clearly as Amos. Along with  Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah, Amos is set in the 8th century BC, “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel“.

Life for the upper classes in the time of Jeroboam II seemed to have been pretty good. Israel enjoyed military successes against Syria and a booming economy based on trade with Assyria and Egypt. But Amos warns that all is not well in God’s eyes. There is tremendous and accelerating income inequality. The rich and powerful take advantage of the poor and marginalized to become even richer and more powerful, and they live lives of hedonistic unconcern for the least among them. God is angry, and  his judgement is on the way. Amos hears God warning the Israelite one-percenters: “I will tear down the winter house as well as the summer house; and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end” and “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, “Bring something to drink!” The Lord God has sworn by his holiness: The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.”

Amos presents God as being particularly upset with those who see themselves as religious, but do not express their faith in acts of justice and mercy. God is disgusted by their pious, empty acts of worship, and  many who long for the “day of the Lord” are in for an unpleasant surprise. It will not be what they expect. ” Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake.  Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it? I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.  But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

We know the rest of the story. Amos gets reported to the king for his unpatriotic, heretical prophecies and Jeroboam tells him he should just leave the country if he doesn’t like the way things are. Nothing changes, and  Israel eventually falls, ironically to their former trading partner Assyria.

Amos is a very scary book to me, because I can’t help but see many parallels between the world in which Amos lived so many centuries ago, and the one in which we live today. Income equality is a serious and growing problem. Too many people go through life like hamsters on a wheel; the faster they run and the harder they work, the farther behind they fall. We have plenty of people today who profess to a form of religion while denying its substance. Preachers of the prosperity gospel distort the words of Scripture into promoting  something completely different from the gospel of Christ. And like Amos, those who attempt to issue words of warning are maligned and ignored. Martin Luther King famously quoted Amos in his “I Have a Dream” speech.  If you’ve never read the entire transcript of Jeremiah Wright’s infamous sermon, here’s a link. He certainly seems to be channeling Amos, “colorful metaphors” and all.

So where’s the good news in Amos? In the midst of all the dire warnings, there are words of hope. Some are conditional: there is still time to change the behaviors that have set Israel on an accelerating course into judgement. Amos implores them to “seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” And amazingly, some are unconditional. One day, God is going to put right what humans have caused to go so terribly wrong: “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who plows shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.”

God is in control, and working, with and without our help, to fix all that is broken and wrong in the world he created and called “very good”. And that’s good news to me.

Joel: In a Time of National Disaster

Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.  Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit. will show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

This year marked the 15th anniversary of the  9/11 terrorist attacks, and as I read through Joel in my annual trek through the Bible, I couldn’t help but see a parallel. When disaster strikes, where is God?

The timing of Joel’s writing is uncertain, but his short book is written in response to an particular,  and unusually severe and  devastating plague of locusts. Interestingly, unlike most Biblical prophets, Joel doesn’t attribute this disaster to God. He doesn’t say that God sent or allowed this plague because of their unfaithfulness, or bad behavior toward their fellow men. He just uses some unforgettable poetic metaphors to describe how bad things are, and implores the people to call upon God as their only hope.

I’ve always liked the passage in Joel, which Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost, for its inclusivity. The spirit of God is not limited by age or gender or ethnicity or station in life. It is available to everyone. And one day, God will put all things right that have now gone wrong. And that’s good news to me.





Hosea: Love Knows No Limits

When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord.” So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

Hosea is the first book in what the Christian Bible designates as the Minor Prophets, and what the Hebrew Bible calls the Book of the Twelve. “Minor” is a reference to length, not significance, and the Book of the Twelve most likely became known by that name because all twelve books fit nicely onto a single scroll. The Book of the Twelve was probably collated during the Exile, but the books in it reference different time periods and social milieus.

Hosea is set in eighth century BC, shortly before the  fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians. Like the other prophets of this time period, Hosea’s prophecies concern not only the dangers of idolatry, but also of social injustice. If parts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel seem like performance art, Hosea takes this method of expressing God’s message to a whole new level. He is commanded to marry a woman who will be unfaithful to him, and to name his children weird names that would make a boy named Sue blush. One is named “Not Mine”, another “Not Loved”, and a third name bears a place name referencing a city infamous for the violent deaths and defeats which occurred there. (Imagine naming a child “Waterloo” or “My Lai”)

Although Gomer might have been simply a cheating spouse or an ordinary prostitute, most scholars believe that her unfaithfulness to Hosea was related to Canaanite fertility worship in some way. Baal was a rain god, and  Asherah a goddess of sexuality and fertility. There were both male and female temple prostitutes, and having sex with them was an act of dedication the worshipers hoped would influence the gods to send rain in due season, and ensue the fertility of their crops and herds. As children of the Enlightenment, we may find this behavior laughable, but the kind of thinking that is behind the act is a persistent one, and not at all funny. Many people today are still prone to think that God can be manipulated. If we believe the right things, say the right prayers, or follow the right rules, we will be concretely rewarded with good health, a fat bank account, and obedient children.

The charges God brings against Israel have an uncanny ring of truth today.  False gods, and false understandings of God lead society into an escalating downward spiral which affects not only their society but all of creation:

“There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land dries up, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea are swept away.”

Some understand Hosea’s warnings to be akin to Jonathan Edward’s “sinners in the hands of an angry God” sermon. I don’t understand them that way. Disaster is coming, but it is a consequence of their own actions. They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” God’s anger is not cruel or vengeful, but the brokenhearted anger of a wronged spouse who has tried everything he could to save his marriage. It is the anger of grief at what has been lost and what might have been, not the anger of retaliation.

Hosea’s redemptive love for Gomer as a metaphor for the kind of love God demonstrates to unfaithful Israel is nothing short of astonishing. Yes, terrible things will happen  because of Israel’s flagrant disrespect for God and disregard for neighbor, but God reaches out again and again until finally love wins. And that’s good news to me.


Daniel: Live Strong

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

In the Christian Bible, Daniel is included among the major prophets with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. However, in the Hebrew Bible, Daniel is sorted into the Writings along with Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and other wisdom literature. It seems to be a composite book, with chapters 1-6 relating stories of Daniel’s legendary faithfulness, and chapters 7-12 containing a series of apocalyptic visions of the future. Parts are written in Aramaic, and parts in Hebrew.  And although its stories are set during the Exile in the sixth century, many scholars believe the book was written or finalized during the second century. If the late dating is correct, Daniel would then be chronologically the last book added to the Hebrew canon.

The book of Daniel contains such familiar stories as Daniel in the lion’s den; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery furnace; and the moving finger which writes Babylon’s doom on the wall. Daniel’s apocalyptic visions are probably less familiar than the stories, but are often interpreted (usually wrongly) by people who would like to pin down the exact date of the end of the world. For example, I can remember that during the sixties, there were those who thought that the ten toes of the giant statue of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream predicted the creation of the European Common Market. When it reached ten members, all hell would literally break loose. That theory went away after the Common Market grew to involve considerably more than ten nations, but after Brexit, it has popped up again in certain circles.

Those of you who regularly read my posts know that I am not an inerrantist. I don’t think the Bible exists to communicate facts, but to illuminate truths. Its purpose is not to provide scientific information, historical records, or future predictions, but to bring people into a transformative relationship with God. I’m in agreement with the scholars who ascribe a date of circa 165 BC for Daniel and categorize it as wisdom literature written in the apocalyptic genre

I’m a fan of science fiction, and of Star Trek in particular. (Yes, I’m old enough to have watched the original series when it first aired.) What I like most about it was the way it used stories to offer social commentary on current events. By telling stories instead of reporting or editorializing on the news, it was effective in getting people to see those events in a different light. The Vietnam war was ratcheting up; cities and college campuses were aflame with race riots and student protests;  JFK, RFK, and MLK were assassinated;  big cities were blanketed with smog and several rivers caught fire due to extreme pollution; and women were generally treated as second-class citizens. In the midst of this, Star Trek envisioned a generally optimistic future where all kinds of people worked together to explore the galaxy, one in which “infinite diversity in infinite combinations” was celebrated. .I see apocalyptic literature as being akin to science fiction in that it utilizes fantastic imagery in futuristic settings to talk about problems that are going on in the present. It just makes sense to me to think of Daniel as written to encourage the second century Jewish people, who were living in particularly perilous times, to “live strong” under Antiochus Epiphanes. It makes much less sense to me to think that God would decide that what the newly exiled, bereft  Israelites of the sixth century really needed was a detailed description of events that would happen hundreds of years in their future, telescoped with events that would happen thousands of years in the future.

You may or may not agree with me about the origin and purpose of Daniel, but here’s the spiritual truth I think lies behind Daniel’s stories and visions: Stay strong. Stand up for what you believe, and do what is right, even if you pay a price for doing so. Evil may reign for a time, but it will never have the final answer. Go with God, and you will find yourself empowered to boldly go into that undiscovered country where the future lies. And that’s good news to me!